Sen. Coburn Left Wondering: Why Doesn’t HHS Check Guardians’ Immigration Status?

The Oklahoma Republican got in a heated exchange with a Health and Human Services official about unaccompanied minors at the border.

Sen. Tom Coburn isn't pleased with the government's ability to protect its most sensitive data.
National Journal
Rachel Roubein
July 9, 2014, noon

The tens of thou­sands of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors who are caught at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der re­ceive med­ic­al care and tem­por­ary shel­ter. The Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment then finds them a more per­man­ent place to live in limbo. But there’s something that goes un­checked: The im­mig­ra­tion status of their newly ap­poin­ted guard­i­an.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blas­ted HHS on Wed­nes­day for that policy, say­ing it “markedly di­min­ishes” the like­li­hood that un­ac­com­pan­ied minors will show up at their sched­uled im­mig­ra­tion hear­ing.

Chil­dren from Cent­ral Amer­ica’s North­ern Tri­angle are flee­ing their home coun­tries as they at­tempt to es­cape vi­ol­ence and eco­nom­ic dis­par­it­ies plaguing the re­gion. And when they’re caught at the bor­der, HHS is tasked with se­cur­ing a place for them to stay while they await an im­mig­ra­tion hear­ing.

About 95 per­cent of the time, the child is taken out of the HHS’s shel­ter and placed with a par­ent, re­l­at­ive, or non­re­l­at­ive spon­sor. These guard­i­ans are told they’re re­quired to bring the child to all court pro­ceed­ings, said Mark Green­berg, act­ing as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for HHS’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies.

But com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Coburn wanted to know wheth­er HHS checks the im­mig­ra­tion status of those spon­sors first. And it’s a ques­tion he asked re­peatedly at a Wed­nes­day hear­ing of the Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. Coburn, who sup­ports de­port­ing chil­dren quickly, grew frus­trated dur­ing the ex­change, and his ques­tions be­came more poin­ted and his voice more heated.

Coburn: You’re miss­ing my point. My point is, I’m all for hav­ing the chil­dren in the best place, don’t get me wrong. But if you’re not check­ing im­mig­ra­tion status of those that you place with them, and if, in fact, they are not here leg­ally, the like­li­hood that they’re go­ing to show up be­fore a judge is markedly di­min­ished be­cause it ex­poses them. So the ques­tion I would ask you is, why you all don’t ask for status of the people that you place these chil­dren with?

Green­berg: So, the spe­cif­ic as­pects of what hap­pens in the pro­ceed­ings are best ad­dressed by my col­league at the De­part­ment of Justice.

Coburn: I know. I un­der­stand that. I’m ask­ing you the ques­tion, why you don’t ask the status of the people with whom you’re pla­cing the child? Why do you not ask that ques­tion? Be­cause in all like­li­hood, they are not go­ing to show for an im­mig­ra­tion hear­ing.

Green­berg: So, for us the fo­cus needs to be on a safe and ap­pro­pri­ate place­ment for the child.

Coburn: You’re not go­ing to an­swer my ques­tion. Why you do not ask that ques­tion of those people with whom you’re pla­cing these chil­dren?

Green­berg: So, even if we have the in­form­a­tion as to the par­ent or oth­er re­l­at­ive’s im­mig­ra­tion status we would still, at that point, need to look at the to­tal­ity of the cir­cum­stances.

Coburn: I don’t dis­agree with that. I’m ask­ing why do you not ask that ques­tion?

Green­berg: Sir, the reas­on —

Coburn: Is it the policy of HHS not to ask the status of the per­son with whom you’re pla­cing the child?

Green­berg: We do not spe­cific­ally —

Coburn: Is that the policy of HHS of this coun­try?

Green­berg: Yes, it is. That is the case. Yes.

Nearly 18 per­cent of total mi­grants fail to at­tend their court pro­ceed­ing, but the Justice De­part­ment doesn’t have the per­cent­age of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors who are no-shows, Juan Os­una, DOJ Ex­ec­ut­ive Of­fice of Im­mig­ra­tion Re­view dir­ect­or, said at the Wed­nes­day hear­ing.

Cur­rently, law­makers are in the midst of de­term­in­ing how to ad­dress the in­flux of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors en­ter­ing the coun­try il­leg­ally, and Con­gress has some lee­way to ana­lyze the situ­ation and make de­mands. Pres­id­ent Obama needs both cham­bers to ap­prove emer­gency fund­ing to ad­dress the hu­man­it­ari­an crisis — and how to best to stop chil­dren from liv­ing in the shad­ows.

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